Us and them Britain

Two recently published reports have served to expose the true nature of Britain today, writes Eddie Ford

The government-commissioned National Equality Panel study, An anatomy of economic inequality in the UK, is introduced by Harriet Harman, who, besides being deputy prime minister, is also chair of the Labour Party, lord privy seal, leader of the House of Commons and minister for women and equality. She hopes for “the right of every individual to reach their full potential” and for “a strong and meritocratic economy”.

Then there is the British Social Attitudes survey, conducted by the non-profit-making National Centre for Social Research - which advertises itself as Britain’s “leading independent social research institute” and annually asks 4,000 people a variety of questions about sex, relationships, governmental social policies, the workplace and so on.[1]

In both studies the picture painted of British society is far from rosy. Rather than a dynamic, socially mobile, “meritocratic” UK - the dream, or maybe nightmare, promulgated by mainstream politicians and their army of well remunerated apologists - what we have is deepening and widening inequality: a society becoming more ossified and class-bound, not less. We are certainly not living in the promised land.

Of course, as is only to be expected of such surveys, much of the findings and data appears at first glance quite contradictory - if not downright confusing. Needless to say, sections of the rightwing media have seized upon certain aspects of the studies - especially the one produced by NatCen - as supposed confirmation that society’s ideological tide is moving inexorably towards them and the Tory camp. However, upon closer examination of the reports we in fact find a relatively consistent set of statistics which in no way acts as a simple proof that British society is heading to the right.

So, totally unsurprisingly - or so you would think - the NatCen survey clearly shows we now have a more “liberal” (ie, progressive) attitude towards drugs, homosexuality and sex outside the institution of marriage (or ‘living in sin’, as it used to be revealingly called in those not so far-off days). Therefore, from that point of view, very bad news indeed for dyed-in-the-wool reactionaries like Melanie Phillips of the Daily Mail, who looks towards the “re-moralised” Victorian era as her social role-model and inspiration - as opposed to the “licentious” and “dissolute” UK we apparently have now.[2]

Thus only 36% of people in 2008 thought that sexual relations between two adults of the same sex were “always or mostly wrong” - significantly down from the 62% who were asked the same question in 1983. While older people may still be less accepting than younger ones - hardly a staggering revelation there - the statistics demonstrate that all age groups had become more tolerant of homosexuality. Similarly, when asked whether “people who want to have children ought to get married”, 71% replied in the affirmative in 1989, but only 51% by 2008. Additionally, 45% of respondents agreed that it made “no difference to children whether their parents are married to each other or just living together” - up from the 38% in 1998.

Indeed, it is fair to say that, in terms of how society views - and judges - the steadily increasing number of kids growing up without married parents, it is becoming normalised. That is, gladly, moralistic disapproval of such ‘lifestyles’ - as with gays - is on the sharp decline. Ditto for drugs obviously. So, when asked in 1983 whether cannabis “should remain illegal”, 67% say yes in 1983, but only 58% did so in 2008.

But it is the data surrounding ‘tax and spending’, and to a lesser extent voting intentions, that has generated the most rightwing heat and excitement. Hence, when questioned as to whether the government should “increase taxes and spend more on health, education and social services”, 39% in 2008 replied in the affirmative - a noticeable decrease from the 50% in 1989. Less dramatically, the 46% of people in 1989 who thought the government should “keep taxes and spending on these services at the same level as now” had only increased by 4% as we arrived at 2008. As for political or electoral affiliations, as of 2008 just 27% now regard themselves as “long-term Labour supporters” - even though as recently as 2005 40% considered themselves pro-Labour. Indeed, at 32% in 2008, those who would call themselves a “Conservative” outnumber those who say they are “Labour” for the first time since 1989. Then there are those who think “it’s not really worth voting” at all - they were a mere 8% in 1996, but by 2008 had increased to 18% - and, as for the 76% in 1987 who believed “it’s everyone’s duty to vote”, by 2008 such a sentiment had declined to 56%.

Imagined conversion

Naturally, The Daily Telegraph proclaimed a new dawn - claiming Britain has “become a more conservative country in the past two decades, both politically and socially”. Indeed, the newspaper chose to interpret the NatCen report as evidence that the “public has concluded ‘enough is enough’ for increased taxation and raised spending on key services such as health and education, with support at its lowest for almost three decades” - furthermore, we are blithely told, there is a “majority believing that the poor should do more to look after themselves”.[3] Which is to say, the Telegraph wants us to believe that the British public are swinging to the right and are chomping at the bit to vote for David Cameron.

But, of course, the Telegraph’s take on the British Social Attitudes survey is utterly disingenuous - pure Tory spin. If you view the data in its overall context, then it tells a different story. So, yes, it is maybe the case - as the Telegraph says - that only two in five people support increased taxes to fund higher spending on health and education (ie, down from the 62% in 1997), while exactly half say taxes and spending should remain as they are now. On the other hand though, when asked the direct question - should the government “reduce taxes and spend less on health, education and social services” - then only 8% supported cuts. So perhaps the UK has not become Toryland quite yet.

For communists it is not too hard to discern the logical kernel - and political truth - that lies at the heart of the NatCen survey. In Britain over the years we have seen an increase in absolute spending on health, social services, benefits, education, etc. A relentless rise in social and welfare provision, as pointed to and moaned about by near countless rightwing pundits on both sides of the Atlantic. Yet for masses of people ‘big government’, and its big bucks, has not made a fig of effective difference when it comes to the ‘pay gap’, upward mobility, life expectancy and so on.

In other words, rather than some sort of imagined wholesale conversion to Thatcherite or neoliberal ideology, social demoralisation has set in - therefore it is hardly surprising that 18% of those polled think it is “not really worth voting” or have become less than enthusiastic about “raising taxes”. If anything, the only surprise lies in the fact that these figures are so low. More to the point, the NatCen statistics reflect - albeit in a negative or backward way - the instinctive feeling that the British state and its institutions do not necessarily have a benign or empowering function: that its tax and spending policies just do not work, and on that communists would heartily agree with them.

After all, during the past few decades we have all lived through a gruelling ideological offensive against the very idea of equality or ‘redistributory politics’ - even if they did have the sheer cynical gall to sanctimoniously pontificate about their commitment to ‘equality of opportunity’ (ie, to the continuance of gross inequality). For the Thatcherites, Blairites and Brownites - and no doubt their successors - it was glorious to get rich, with the promotion of economic self-interest and selfishness becoming virtual government policy. Indeed, did not Peter Mandelson - speaking on behalf of the Blair team and the entire New Labour project - famously declare that “we are intensely relaxed about people getting filthy rich”? ‘Have no fear’ was the online message from the doyens of Cool Britannia: if you are a dynamic go-getter you will rise to the top - even if it means someone else will have to sink to the bottom. But they almost certainly deserved their fate anyway, for being lazy and not half as dynamic as you are.

Gap wider

But, of course, this get-rich ‘contract’, the new deal in new Britain, was always a fraud - something that we can read about in the NEP’s An anatomy of economic inequality in the UK, which informs us that the gap between rich and poor is “wider now than 40 years ago”. Typically though, the document places an undue - and ultimately distorting - emphasis on sex and race inequality, especially the former. So the NEP found that, despite women up to the age of 44 having better qualifications than men, men were still paid up to 21% more per hour - providing a welter of statistics along these lines. Communists, of course, highlight this gender ‘pay gap’ in their propaganda - and the same goes for any racial or ethnic ‘gaps’ - being militant fighters against all forms of discrimination, whether it be inside or outside the workplace.

However, An anatomy of economic inequality in the UK uses the undoubted existence of sex and race inequality as a statistical smokescreen: to hide or disguise the class inequality and exploitation that lies at the core of British society and from which the owners and controllers of capital derive their obscene wealth and embedded social-political power. Not something the NEP survey cares to mention, even if the incriminating evidence lies buried deep in the report’s seemingly endless graphs and charts.

Thus 50% of the working population earn below £393 a week. We discover that the top 10% are worth more than £853,000, while the bottom 1% have “negative wealth” - ie, their liabilities exceed their assets - of £3,840 and more. Furthermore, the top 10% are 100 times wealthier than the bottom 10%. Grotesquely, as the report admits, it is more and more the case that for working class children the employment standing of parents has a cumulative - and dampening - effect throughout their entire life, more or less killing off any prospect of getting ‘promoted’ to the middle classes or even further up the social ladder. Conversely, of course - to use the words of the panel’s chair, professor John Hills - the sort of “things that allow you to buy a house in the catchment area of a good school or allow you to help your children get on the housing ladder” make “very big differences”. Therefore by retirement, the survey notes, the difference between rich and poor can be “colossal” - whether you have worked like a carthorse all your life or not.[4]

If this picture of UK plc was not damning enough, An anatomy of economic inequality in the UK comes on top of last year’s 13,000-page Unleashing aspiration by the Panel of Fair Access to the Professions. This catalogued in grim, forensic detail how the well entrenched elite look after their own and people from one generation to another are poverty-trapped. So, while only 7% of the adult population attended private schools, some 75% of judges, 70% of finance directors and one in three MPs received their education in such an institution - truly setting them up for life. Out of the 12 professions examined in some considerable detail in Unleashing aspiration, in nine of them - especially medicine and the law - the percentage of entrants coming from “well-off” families has been steadily increasing. Perhaps surprising to some, we also found out that more than half of the “top journalists” - print, radio and TV - were privately educated, and this number has actually increased since the 1980s, for all the regional accents you so often hear these days. And so depressingly on.

In her introduction to An anatomy, Harman sermonises about how the NEP report serves as a “big challenge”. But, she continues, for “the sake of the right of every individual to reach their full potential” and for “the sake of a strong and meritocratic economy and to achieve a peaceful and cohesive society”, that is “the challenge which must be met”.[5]

Here, of course, is the rub. Both these reports - for all the facts and statistics which point in the opposite direction - completely accept Britain’s class structures and the political status quo. In reality, there is no commitment - the notion is not even seriously entertained - of genuinely equalising our society, not even in reformist, social democratic terms. Rather, the overriding imperative is to defend and promote the “meritocracy” and “social mobility”.

What of the Labour government’s commitment to “social mobility” and re-energising the “meritocratic economy”? These very ideas, and the attendant ideologies, are intrinsic to a declining capitalism - precisely in order to meet its increasing need for managers, technicians, teachers, lawyers, civil service and local government cadres, etc, and in order to integrate the trade union bureaucracy and buy off the top layers of the working class with promises of entry into the sanctified ranks of the middle classes, or even into the actual bourgeoisie itself. By these means - with its supposedly natural order of alphas, betas and gammas - the state safeguarded and stabilised the capitalist social order, especially in the period 1945-79.

Of course, whether people were alphas, betas or gammas, they were stunted, partial, straitjacketed human beings. Consumer culture, the growth of bureaucracy and subordination of living people to lifeless commands and targets crushed initiative, personality, creativity and sociability. However nihilistically, it is not surprising that youth rebelled against the stifling conformity of the period.

Not surprisingly either, with the turn to financialisation in the 1980s and the reversing of the social democratic settlement there came an end to “social mobility” and “meritocracy”. Capitalism’s period of decline entered its own decline. But we in the CPGB - as opposed to the authors of worthy reports on inequality - do not yearn for a return to the social democratic past. Rather we envisage a communist society where the full development of each is premised on the full development of all. Indeed only with the full development of all can the individual become fully rounded, fully human.


  1. www.natcen.ac.uk/home.
  2. Daily Mail January 25.
  3. The Daily Telegraph January 26.
  4. http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/business/8481534.stm.
  5. www.equalities.gov.uk/national_equality_panel.aspx.